Oct 14, 2020
For all the hand wringing over Donald Trump’s authoritarian rhetoric, the 2020 US election is not really about the incumbent. It is about deep-seated suspicion regarding the national government’s role, which makes populism a recurring feature of American political history.
CHICAGO – Next month’s United States election is not about policy, nor is it even about President Donald Trump. It is about America’s constitutional system. This is not to suggest that the election could end that system. While Trump has an authoritarian temperament and admires dictators like Russian President Vladimir Putin, he is unlikely to become an autocrat even if he is re-elected. The real question that America faces concerns the role of the national government in the life of the country.
Trumpism is just the latest in a series of populist waves born of anger toward what people see as unaccountable, self-interested political elites in Washington, DC. Indeed, the story begins before that city was founded. The American Revolution targeted remote, self-interested elites in London, and it was soon followed by a major dispute over the power of the national government.
Critics argued that the proposed new Constitution would create a national governing elite, thus undermining the hard-won sovereignty of the colonies-turned-states. Though the Constitution’s proponents prevailed, the critics proved prescient. Almost immediately, populist movements emerged to challenge what was seen as elite rule. Jeffersonian democracy overthrew the Federalist elites in 1800, and then Jacksonian democracy overthrew the Jeffersonian elites in 1829.
Although Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy differed in many ways, both reflected a belief that the elites who had led the American Revolution had broken their promise of delivering self-government to the masses. Elected officials, judges, and bureaucrats seemed to come from great families or the upper class, and to rule accordingly, like the corrupt aristocracy Americans had just escaped. The solution was to return political power to the masses by expanding the franchise, extending democracy to more offices (like state judgeships), and limiting the power of the national government.
This wave of populism was temporarily overtaken by the debate over slavery and the Civil War, but it roared back in the late nineteenth century. This time, it was led by southern and midwestern farmers who believed that they were being ignored by the two main political parties, and exploited by the banks and railroads those parties served. The Populists invoked Jackson as their hero, attacked the entire political system as corrupt, and formed their own People’s Party to advance their interests.
The next great wave of populism came during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Politicians like Huey Long, Louisiana’s governor and then a US senator, came to power by promising to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. Long accused established politicians of plutocracy, and attempted to undermine all competing power centers, from the state legislature to the university system. By the time he died, in 1935, he had attracted a significant national following.